US aid will finally go to persecuted Christians

So declares a resolute Vice President Mike Pence.

It probably comes as news to most people that the US wasn’t sending relief to Christian and Yazidi survivors of genocide these past many years they’ve been so endangered. Especially since a lot of money was directed to aid persecuted minorities during President Obama’s administration, which continued through the first year of President Trump’s. Where did it go?

Leading human rights expert Nina Shea has taken every opportunity possible to tell that story, enfolded within the greater narrative of the unfolding disaster in the Middle East.

An example, from late last month:

Since fiscal 2014, the U.S. has provided $1.4 billion in humanitarian aid for Iraq, but very little of it has reached the beleaguered Christian and Yazidi communities. This is because the Obama administration decided to channel most of it through United Nations refugee and development agencies, a practice the new administration has continued. There is no protection for religious minorities in the U.N.’s overwhelmingly Muslim camps, and Christians and Yazidis are terrified of entering them. The U.N. doesn’t operate camps in Iraq for displaced Christians, and the international body has enough resources to shelter only half the Yazidis who congregate around Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan. U.N. programs also exclude the local churches that struggle to care for these minorities, forcing them to raise aid on a piecemeal and insecure basis from other sources.

This has been the remarkably bad, sad truth about their plight. Furthermore…

Far lower percentages of Christians and Yazidis are returning from displacement to their homes in the devastated Nineveh Plains and Sinjar, respectively, compared with the larger religious groups in Tikrit, Fallujah and Mosul. The prior (Obama) administration decided to have U.S. reconstruction assistance, now at $265 million since fiscal 2015, also flow through the U.N. The director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Mark Green, started only last month and has not yet moved to change this policy.

(As of the end of September.)

USAID lacks direct oversight in Nineveh and relies heavily on U.N. Development Program reports that claim progress in Christian towns. One local church authority told me the U.N. reports “grossly overstate the quality and substance of the actual work” and their projects’ influence is “minimal or nonexistent.” A representative from the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, a unified church group, told me earlier this month that the only major projects under way are its own. These are supported by Hungary and the Knights of Columbus. Samaritan’s Purse and Aid to the Church in Need are planning projects in Qaraqosh, also without U.S. government assistance. These private charities can rebuild houses, but large infrastructure projects need government aid.

 

The U.N. acknowledges that most of the displaced minorities have not returned home and have shown “a reluctance to return without guarantees of their security and the stability of their towns and villages.” Church leaders close to the displaced are excluded from U.N. and Iraqi government committees that decide stabilization projects, track progress and ensure locals are hired for them.

And yet, administrative foot-dragging continued.

Earlier this year, Congress allocated more than $1.4 billion in funds for refugee assistance and included specific language to ensure that part of the money would be used to assist Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims—all groups the State Department deemed victims of genocide in 2016. Over the summer, Tillerson affirmed his belief that these religious minority groups in Iraq are the victims of Islamic-State genocide.

 

Lawmakers who passed the bills providing the funds, as well as human rights activists and Catholic charities, were encouraged by Tillerson’s affirmation of the genocide declaration, but they say his statements have done nothing to change the situation on the ground. The Yazidis and Christians are still not getting the necessary money to help them rebuild their lives and communities in the Northern Iraq’s Ninevah province, where they have thrived for thousands of years.

 

The Knights of Columbus, a global Catholic charity helping with the housing, feeding, and medical care of thousands of Yazidis and Christians, has stated that a much larger rebuilding plan is needed to save them from extinction in Iraq.

 

Stephen Rasche, general counsel of the Archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq, applauded the State Department’s assistance to the Rohingya community in Burma. However, he and other Catholic leaders remain “deeply concerned” that the U.S. government has still directed “little or no aid” to the Christian community in Iraq despite its clear declaration that ISIS committed genocide against Christians.

Then Congress intervened, especially four key members of the House of Representatives.

The urgent push comes amid dire warnings from lawmakers and human rights activists that Christians and Yazidis, already victims of genocide at the hands of the Islamic State, are on the verge of extinction in Northern Iraq, their home for thousands of years.

 

The lawmakers also point to new evidence of corruption in the United Nations’ process for stabilization projects in Iraq.

That came just days before In Defense of Christians‘ annual Summit in Washington D.C., featuring dozens of international human rights leaders, clergy, members of government, and Vice President Mike Pence representing the Trump administration.

Pence revealed President Trump has ordered the State Department “to stop ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations, and from this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID.”

 

In a statement likely intended as a wakeup call to the global diplomatic community, Pence added, “We will no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups.”

 

Instead, Pence said, federal agencies “will work hand-in-hand with faith-based groups and private organizations to help those who are persecuted for their faith.”

Some Christian media called it a “bombshell”. The Atlantic report it, in grand understatement, as a shift.

Pence made it clear that the Trump administration is specifically focused on protecting Christians as part of its national-security agenda. “Christianity is under unprecedented assault in those ancient lands where it first grew,” the vice president said. “Across the wider Middle East, we can now see a future in many areas without a Christian faith. But tonight, I came to tell you: Help is on the way.”

The ‘international religious freedom as national security issue’ message is one experts have been emphasizing for years. In his address, Pence signaled that the administration got the message.

Since the president took office, he has been promising to eradicate terrorism and eliminate the “beachhead of intolerance” created by radicalism. What was different here is that Pence promised a policy shift to accompany the rhetoric: Based on claims that the United Nations often denies funding requests from faith-based organizations and provides only “ineffective relief efforts,” the administration will now “provide support directly” through USAID.

 

Conservative religious-freedom advocates have long pushed for money to be redirected away from the UN. “I am overjoyed,” said Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. “The [UN] projects that are taking place are superficial and cosmetic projects—coats of paint rather than a renovation or a reconstruction.” This funding shift, she said, is “a battle won.”

The author attempts to diminish the importance of the shift in funds late in the piece, calling it “misleading”, but it is she who is misled. Yes, the money will go to private NGOs on the ground doing the person to person relief work. But they are the best groups, like the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need, and others which apply the full funding to the intended recipients and take no portion for their own costs. They are professionals, they know the people and the specific needs, and apply their full resources to addressing them.

In December, when Pence visits the Middle East, “one of the messages I will bring on the president’s behalf … is that now is the time to bring an end to the persecution of Christians and all religious minorities,” he said on Wednesday. The Associated Press reports that he will visit Israel and meet with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the president of Egypt. While “the Trump administration came in saying they don’t want to do nation building,” said Shea, she argued that this focus on persecuted Christians is something different: “It’s a moral obligation and a legal obligation to, in a broad sense, help them recover from the genocide.”

It’s long overdue.

One guiding principle for voting

Don’t vote for pro-abortion politicians.

The choice should be clear and uncomplicated.

Nearly all of this election cycle has been almost historically unclear and terribly complicated. There are few certainties, and then campaign rhetoric and media spin can cast doubt even about those.

But one thing that is, was brought up at a major annual convention recently, got distorted in reporting by some media, and then clarified by an astute journalist of the highest integrity, and it all came down to one simple, concise message: Not voting for ‘pro-choice’ candidates is the least we can do.

Catholics and other Christians have helped get the country into the abortion divide for more than fifty years. Time to change that grave mistake.

How grave?

Carl Anderson (a true leader in an age with a dearth of them) Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus (an outstanding organization by any objective standard) addressed their annual convention in Toronto just over a week ago. Journalist Kathryn Jean Lopez was there, not planning to write about it, but taking notes as always. Talking with me on radio this Monday about events lately, the Knights’ involvement in international relief efforts in humanitarian crises, always protecting and defending human life and dignity, Kathryn said she saw Anderson’s brief remarks about moral responsibility in the political process distorted by some media into something he didn’t say, and decided to write about it after all. I’m so glad she did.

What this article says is so clear and concise and necessary.

Repeating something he said eight years ago, Anderson told those gathered: “The right to abortion is not just another political issue; it is in reality a legal regime that has resulted in more than 40 million deaths.” To his Toronto audience, he pointed out: “Forty million is greater than the entire population of Canada.” He asked: “What political issue could possibly outweigh this human devastation? The answer, of course, is that there is none.”

Kathryn told me that Carl Anderson went back to an address he gave two election cycles ago, in 2008, and delivered “non-partisan, uncontroversial” remarks to this gathering at this time in our history, because they applied in a timeless way. He named no candidate, no party, gave no endorsements or voting preferences other than that message about voting for candidates for office who would uphold the right of every human being to have a life in the first place, which then could be welcomed, sheltered, cared for, all the provisions the social gospel calls for as every believing Christian is called to know and to carry out.

If you won’t guarantee a human life has the right to continue to exist, you cannot make a coherent argument that any goods or rights or provisions should or must, in the name of justice, be provided human life. It’s really that simple.

As Anderson says, there is a poison in our polity. Pluralism has encountered something grave, something that for more than four decades we have allowed to become a hidden background story, as we refer to it with euphemisms and hardened activism. What we need is the truth we can see on a sonogram — along with tender mercy, especially for those who have suffered because of the mainstreaming of abortion as a faux symbol of health care and freedom, even to the point of instituting government mandates in health-insurance coverage to make us believe these things.

She expanded on theses points again on Crux.

Anderson said abortion must be a priority. He didn’t say it’s the only thing we need to care about, but he did say that when assessing a candidate it ought to be a showstopper and a game-changer, and he’s completely right.

A point worth making is that Anderson was not speaking in the context of an academic theological debate. He was making an argument for a new, non-partisan political strategy, which is that we can change policy by withholding our vote from any candidate, of any party, who supports abortion.

Anderson sees that voting for pro-abortion politicians for other reasons has not brought them closer to a moral position, or even the pro-restriction position that polling shows is held by 8 in 10 Americans. His point was that at a time when America’s fundamental moral direction seems up for grabs, encouraging a pro-abortion candidate, for whatever reason, is not a wise prudential choice.

That’s all the more so as another Catholic vice-presidential candidate wraps himself in the flag of Pope Francis. Yet Francis, as it happens, is also against abortion.

This is not complicated, and should not be easily distorted or spun.

If there’s any breaking news in Anderson’s remarks, it is that we remain stuck in an unnecessary divide. This election is an opportunity for Catholics, for other Christians and religious believers, and all people of good will.

Don’t be party people. Be a people of life.

Talking about politics and practical front-line work, Anderson said to his brother Knights of Columbus: “Every time we save a life, we change the course of history.”

UN conference hears experts, witnesses, survivors call for global response to genocide

Faith groups are attacked, Christians specifically targeted for elimination.

World leaders, governments, international organizations and human rights champions have risen the threat and awareness level in recent months over crises that have been occurring for years out of sight and largely off public radar. Now there’s a new urgency, and some leading voices are asking if it’s coming in time to make a difference.

That’s only one concern expressed at last weekend’s International Congress on Religious Freedom in New York, a three day event that opened Thursday with a U.N. conference sponsored by the Vatican’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

Presenters included people who experienced or witnessed atrocities being committed against religious minorities.

Led by remarks from Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the U.N., the event had an intensely sensitive agenda.

That, I can vouch for, having attended all of it.

The world’s greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II is unfolding today in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of people in Syria and Iraq have lost their lives, entire communities have been displaced or wiped out, while neighboring communities or nations have strained to accept millions of people fleeing years of war and terrorism. We face the very real prospect of the extinction of many of the communities indigenous to the region.

Anderson gave background and findings of a nearly 300 page report his organization and In Defense of Christians submitted to the State Department and Congress in March, documenting atrocities and extensive evidence of genocide in the region.

And it showed that terms like ‘religious cleansing’, or ‘crimes against humanity’ are by themselves inadequate to describe both the magnitude of the tragedy and the clear intent of the perpetrators. The State Department’s declaration of genocide on March 17th marked only the second time that such a determination had been made by the U.S. government while the crime is occurring.

And then he added

Isis and the victims we interviewed agreed on one thing, many of those targeted were targeted because of their Christian faith…Our recent fact-finding mission to Iraq found evidence of (atrocities including) murder, slavery, property confiscation and expulsion. Many of the incidents have not been previously reported. But based on what we learned, it is our impression that what we know today is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg.

Anderson was only the first of the speakers, and his testimony set the tone for a powerful, intensive, collaborative witness to what Pope Francis calls a “third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing”, which he called genocide, adding “I insist on the word”.

In Rome, the Trevi Fountain was lit red, in commemoration of Christian martyrdom, and mass execution of other religious minorities, to call the Western world to attention. Sitting through the UN conference on it, hearing powerful testimony, expert reports and stunning witness, I hope and pray it worked. The event in New York certainly seemed to mark a turning point.